Gospel: John 2:13-22
1st Reading: Exodus 20:1-17
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
A funny joke I heard this week: “If anyone ever asks, 'What would Jesus do,' remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.” This brief episode of intense anger and violence seems out of character for Jesus, so we have to ask ourselves why he is so mad.
To find out the answer to that question, we can go back to the reading from Exodus this morning. We call this the Ten Commandments, but God didn't number them. There are a lot of commandments in the Old Testament. Here they are referred to as “words” God spoke.
They are words that remind the people where they came from and who they are. God starts by bringing the Isrealites to the beginning of their relationship. God is the “I am” who brought them out of slavery. That is the beginning and purpose of their relationship. God entered into their story to save them from slavery.
Then we get these words or commandments. These words are meant to ensure the freedom of this people. They have been freed by God. Now they must not do anything to infringe on the freedoms of others and they must not become enslaved again. They should not become enslaved to other gods, they should not become enslaved to their work or cause others to be, they should not take away the freedoms of others by killing or stealing or lying, or enslave themselves in the trap of wishing they had what their neighbor has. The Ten Commandments are a list of how to live in freedom and how to help others be just as free as we are.
Jesus is angry because the scene he comes upon in the temple is a system of slavery. The Temple is built to provide a place for people to know the freedom and nearness of God. Instead, here is this place of corruption and harm and enslavement. You shall have no other gods before me. Here in the temple they were changing out coins with Caesar's face on it for ones acceptable in the temple. The money changers were taking advantage of the poor. They were worshiping money and putting it before relationship with God. Originally the sacrifices were the first fruits of the field or young animals from among the flock. Now people found they had to purchase animals at the price set by the temple, after first losing some of that money in an exchange, just to feel right with God, close to God. The God who was so available during the exodus in the pillar of smoke or fire, was now distant and hard to find. There were so many barriers to contact and relationship with God. Furthermore, those in authority were making wrongful use of the name of the LORD—saying that God desired sacrifices, when it was the priests and scribes making money hand over fist in the system of sacrifice. They were stealing from the very most poor people in these transactions. They were bearing false witness by making people think this is what they needed to do to make God happy.
Jesus is angry. If any of you think anger isn't acceptable for Christians—here you have it, Jesus was angry. Anger has its place when all that God had done to free the people was being undone in God's name. Anger can be good when it motivates us to act on behalf of others who are being taken advantage of. Jesus didn't hurt anyone though. They might think he is going to hurt them, but the damage he causes is much deeper. He disrupts their activities, their system of oppression.
Jesus drives them from the Temple. He dumps all their profits on the floor and mixes them together. How will they ever sort it out? And he calls for the destruction of the precious Temple—the one that is still under construction. They haven't even enjoyed the full benefits of their renovations. Jesus wanted to destroy the Temple they had been working so hard on. Maybe this is a reflection that the Gospel writer, writing 60+ years later knew that the temple would be destroyed because he had seen it with his own eyes. Maybe this is a reflection that Jesus knows that the practices of the temple, slavery practices, practices that are against the values and commandments of God, will necessarily lead to its destruction as consequences of that way of living. Jesus knew the temple system had to go, because it was corrupt to its core. But Jesus knew that wouldn't be the end of having access to God. Instead, God's presence could be found in Jesus and after Jesus' ascension in all of us because of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The temple had to go. It was a corrupt system that brought people into slavery and further from God. Some people have experienced church this way. They've seen religion misused to manipulate and control people. They've seen people hurting each other in God's name. They see hypocrites in churches, there for show or to prove they are better than other people. It is important to remember that we don't need church to have a relationship with God. Thanks for coming today, by the way. For most of us, I would guess that we've found healing from the hurts that the church has caused us and recognize that any human institution is going to have its problems. And many of us have found that even though we can and often do volunteer on our own in the community and appreciate and worship God at other times of the week in other places, that it is helpful to have the encouragement and love that comes through a community of faith and a chance to practice the love and forgiveness that God teaches us about. God's presence doesn't come through a building or a system, but through Jesus and his presence in those around us, especially those we reject and are offended by.
It is comforting to think that even if our church walls came down, even as one who makes my living by serving and leading a church, that our faith would still go on and God's presence would still be known. In fact it can be kind of exciting to think about what church might look like, if done in a different way, in a different place. I know I could make my living fixing people's glasses, or providing pastoral care in another setting, such as a hospital. Someday, I imagine, the church will be completely different than it is now. It won't necessarily be better or worse, but worship and love of God will go on and Christian community will go on. I have to think that what is good will survive and what isn't helpful, what brings slavery or violates God's values and love will have to go.
Maybe it sounds foolish for me to be willing to give up my comforts and my career, at least hypothetically. Part of what I am trying to reconnect with in my upcoming sabbatical is that there is a person in here beyond the pastor that I have become. I am a whole person, even if I am not working in my job. I have needs and desires. I come from somewhere and I am going somewhere and most of that has very little to do with what I do for a living. I get to reconnect with who I am when I am not participating in this system, to be able to examine what is life-giving and what is bringing me and you into slavery, so that God can lead us into freedom.
Jesus drove out the system of sacrifice and then he became the sacrifice. He called for the destruction of the Temple and then he became the Temple. He took the system in place that everyone was buying into—that's just the way it is—and pointed out the foolishness in it and turned it on its head, inserted himself into the story in at the vulnerable point. If anyone was going to be placed into slavery because of the system of Temple sacrifice, it would be him. When it was the poor who felt the consequences, people felt they could blame the poor for their own condition, but when we see the consequences on God's own self, we must stop our foolishness. Now, in each unjust situation, we can no longer say, that's the way it is, or that person made bad decisions. We can only picture Jesus in that situation and ask ourselves if we want to participate in something that would damage our neighbor, our brother, the one who came to save and liberate us. We must then see that when we enslave others, we find ourselves enslaved and that is slavery is the opposite of God's intention and hope for us.
It is important to remember on this 50th anniversary of the Selma march, as we move toward the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in 2017, as we notice unjust laws and practices of our own time, that we don't just accept them as the way things are, but we allow ourselves to get angry about them, to see the slavery that still goes on and speak out about it, so that Jesus can free people still in bondage.
When the Temple was physically destroyed and before that when it was revealed as the place of slavery it had become, Jesus offered himself as a permanent temple that would always be with us, in all places and times. Now we always know where God may be found, the Christ Spirit alive in all of Creation, to bring us all out of slavery into freedom.